Sunday, June 4, 2017

"How Do I Look?" Fostering Positive Self and Body Image in Preschoolers

      I've recently been seeing articles floating around the Web about about shocking studies finding that body image awareness - and negative body image - starts as young as preschool (  While this statement is indeed sobering, I consider myself fortunate to teach in a preschool where this information is considered fairly common knowledge.  We recognize the importance of intentionally fostering positive self image in our preschoolers, and we see the parents of our kids doing the same.  We often turn praise back to the children - when asked if their artwork is beautiful, we try to comment on a particular element: their use of dark blue here, the lines in the corner, their choice to crumple and glue their paper just so - and then ask them how they feel about it.  In doing so, we reinforce the fact that their unique work and intentional artistic choices are important to us, as well as fostering their own sense of pride based on specific elements of their work.

 Another way we work toward fostering positive self-image is by moving past the experience of preschoolers as "cute" or "adorable."  Of course, my co-teachers and I think that all of our preschoolers are precious little people and we love them dearly!  But we work to see them as so much more than just cute, and we make sure that they know this.  By viewing preschoolers as smart, capable, unique young individuals, and commenting on what we notice about their developing personalities and traits, we give credit to all of their many traits and skills, which are developing and growing every day.

         Sometimes, making comments about personality traits or communication skills we notice developing can feel very difficult; after all, these traits often present themselves in the form of testing boundaries and pushing limits with adults.  During these times, it can also help us as caregivers to focus on the positive indications of these behaviors, even if just to move past feelings of annoyance in that moment into a sense of acceptance and optimism.

       Take, for example, the classic case of a toddler or preschooler who constantly asks questions and chats about every tiny thing they notice.  As a parent or teacher, this can quickly become draining and frustrating.  If, however, we try to focus on what this chatter indicates about the child - that she is developing super effective communication skills, is learning the structure of language through different forms of questions, is demonstrating a deep curiosity and a thirst for knowledge - and if we can turn this back to her by commenting on and praising her for her curiosity, we are taking the opportunity to foster a highly confident, curious, knowledge-loving young person who will probably be inspired to learn to read as soon as possible.

        This same attitude can be turned toward kids testing in more intense ways, while still maintaining the boundaries that work for you.  "It definitely doesn't work for you to hit things with a baseball bat inside the house, but I see that you are really enjoying moving your body in such big ways.  Your strong body will probably be great at baseball or gymnastics.  You can try those things outside!"
Or, "I won't let you hit your sister.  You were upset that she took your toy, and you were trying to tell her that!  I can see that you are someone who really knows what you want and need.  Let's see if we can tell her in a different way."

       By commenting on and praising what we notice about the children's hard work, unique personality traits, and dedicated interests as often as or even more often than we compliment them on their appearance, we're encouraging their own sense of individuality and pride in aspects of themselves that are lifelong; their appearance right now, after all, is temporary and primarily out of their control.  If we focus on aspects of them that they can control and foster, they will have a strong foundation and understanding of themselves; when they are faced with negative messages about bodies and body image they will be well-armed to combat them with grace and confidence.

         Of course, we all comment on appearances sometimes, and that's totally okay!  At Tumbleweed, we try to keep these comments in the realm of "I notice" and "how do you feel" statements instead of - or in addition to - projecting our own opinions.  For example, we might say:

"Woah, I just noticed you have a cool new truck shirt on today!  You really love trucks, don't you?"  
"That beautiful dress is so long and flowy.  It looks like it's great for twirling around.  I bet you feel pretty good in that!"
"You got a new haircut!  How does that feel?  Would you tell us the story of what happened when you got your hair cut?"

 Instead of saying:

"You look cute in that new truck shirt!"
"You look so beautiful in that dress!"
"It looks like you got a handsome new big boy haircut!" 
Again, engaging children in these conversations about how they feel
and why they intentionally choose their clothes and hairstyles based on things such as favorite colors, comfort, and interests instead of simply "because it's cute" instills a sense of pride and ownership over their appearance.

Here are some more great tips on raising a body positive kid, from the article at :

1. Avoid stereotypes in your kids' media -- starting when kids are in preschool. Look for TV shows, movies, and other media that portray healthy body sizes and avoid sexualized or stereotypical story lines or gendered characters, such as young girls in makeup or boys who are always macho.
  • Pay attention to kids' beliefs about gender and body types, and use simple language to debunk stereotypes: "What do you think Andy would like for his birthday? Trucks? Do you think he'd like dolls, too?"
  • Whenever possible, use gender-neutral or gender-diverse pronouns to reference characters, animals, and so on. For example, not every dinosaur is a "he" and every kitten a "she."

2. Call out stereotypes when you see them. When you see gender stereotypes in media -- for example, during sporting events such as the Super Bowl -- talk about them.
  • As much as possible, minimize exposure to stereotypical depictions of men and women, but when kids see them, demonstrate that questioning how men and women are portrayed is valuable (and even fun). Ask: "Do you think she's cold in that bikini?"
  • Teach kids how magazine and advertising photos are changed by computers to make skin look smoother or people look taller. Make a game out of it: Spot the Photoshop!

3. Challenge assumptions. Ask kids what they think about heavyset or slim toys or characters on TV and in movies. Keep an ear out for kids expressing assumptions about real people based on their body sizes.
  • Remind kids that bodies come in all shapes and sizes (even Barbie now offers size and ethnic variety!) -- even if they don't see that on TV -- and that variety is normal, healthy, and part of what makes life interesting.
  • Tap into preschoolers' ability to empathize by asking how they think a TV character felt when criticized for his or her appearance. Ask: "How would you feel if someone teased you like that?"

4. Ban "fat talk" in your family. Parents -- especially mothers -- who complain about their appearances or bodies, even casually, make a big impact on how their kids think about their bodies.
  • Model a positive attitude toward your own body, and encourage kids to think positively about what their bodies can do. Ask: "What can you do with those strong arms?"
  • Discuss health instead of weight or size. Ask: "How does your body feel when you play sports/exercise/run around?" Say: "My body feels so energetic when I eat healthy food."
FACTS: According to Common Sense Media's Children, Teens, Media, and Body Image, kids who think their moms don't like their bodies end up not liking their own bodies. And girls whose dads are critical of their weight tend to think of themselves as less physically able than those whose dads don't.

5. Focus on behavior, talents, and character traits instead of physical size or appearance. When discussing fictional characters, celebrities, and friends and family, talk about what they do, not what they look like.
  • Talk about qualities such as kindness, curiosity, and perseverance that you value more than appearance. Ask: "What makes a good friend?" Say: "She must have practiced for a long time to be good at dancing!"
  • Prepare kids for when they hear others commenting, comparing, or criticizing bodies or appearance. Role-play situations where kids can try out different responses, such as, "I don't care what she looks like. She's friendly, and that's what matters to me."

The key to all of this?  Conversation.  It's so important to discuss with children the types of stereotypes we see and unpack some of the subconscious assumptions they may already have about bodies - skin color, size, gender, ability.  Doing so will help them think critically about injustices they see throughout their lives, and it will help them gain the skills necessary to shield themselves and others from society's prejudices.  These preschoolers are so amazing...they deserve to grow up knowing just how special they are, in so many ways!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Storytelling and Transcribing

We have a lot of dice in our classroom. They're everywhere! Traditional dot number dice in the wooden small parts tray, written number and letter dice for provocation activities, and story dice. These last ones are a favorite in our class, and small groups of children can often be found gathered around the little illustrated cubes. They inspire creative storytelling and are intentionally open-ended in their illustrations to allow for lots of different interpretations.

When used in small groups, these story dice can lead to amazing collaborative stories and are a useful supplement for conversations about the choices that authors make, such as story structure, plot, character development, setting, timeline, and illustration. 

During one such small group, we approached the story dice pretty freely; I intentionally left out specific guidance to see where the story would organically flow. Each of us held a die in our hands and we took turns rolling, interpreting the image, and finding a way to weave these interpretations into our ever-growing story.  The first child, VM, was responsible for choosing the title, and therefore, the theme, of our story. She rolled her die and saw a picture of a crab. "King Crab's Castle" would be our title. From this title, we could decide that the main character was King Crab, and the story would be something about his life or his castle.

After ten minutes or so, we had crafted a story about a crab who lives under the sea and who finds many exciting things, including a mysterious golden egg and a magical crown. 

After our story naturally wound down (spoiler: the crab dies after eating a poisonous mushroom, which makes him both angry and sick!) I revealed a secret: I had been recording the entire story-writing process on my phone! Our next job was to listen to our fresh story and transcribe it. 

As we listened to our voices telling our story, each child chose an element that stood out to them - a bejeweled cup, the crown, the king's castle, or the crab itself- and illustrated it collaboratively on our large sheet of paper.

As we worked, we discovered that each of us pictured the story and its setting and characters slightly differently. For example, VM, CC, and OM all chose to incorporate the crab into their drawings, and all three of these crab drawings naturally looked quite different from one another.  But we realized that since our story lived in our minds and had previously only been told in words, it totally worked to have different interpretations. This is what makes our story collaborative! We also began noticing more details being added that were not mentioned in our original telling of the story, which filled out our illustration work and made it into quite a unique masterpiece.

In the end, everyone's individual artistic styles and interpretations came together, and we were so proud to see our finished story after working so hard.  We had worked from start to finish - from brainstorming story topics and weaving a story with the help of our beloved story dice, to "transcribing" through illustration.  Just as a book illustrator would, we listened to and thought carefully about the story we had created and made choices about the illustration style, such as colors, setting, and characters to represent.  It felt so good to see our finished collaborative work and know that together, we had created something completely new and unique.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Helping, Coaching, and Celebrating Toddler Independence

The children of Cohort 12 continually blow me away - with their curiosity about the world, their openhearted embrace of their family, friends, and community, their ability to make each other (and their teacher) belly laugh on a regular basis, their sensitive attunement to one another's emotions, and their deeply-felt desire for independence.  These are children who want to figure things out for themselves, and want to do things for themselves!

I saw the seeds of this remarkable independence months ago, when, as infants, most of the children in the cohort didn't want help getting down the porch stairs to go outside.  Even if it took long minutes to figure out a way to safely crawl, walk, or slide down the steps, they were determined to do the work, and usually without any help from me.

Recently, I see the desire for independence strongly when the group is working on diapering, toileting, and getting clothes on and off.  RM figured out how to pull her feet all the way through her pant legs.  I saw NP watching her friend, and soon enough she was doing this work as well.  ZP first figured out how to pull the waistband of his pants up, and then became interested in putting his feet through the pant legs - often with RM cheering him on: "Pull, pull, pull!"  CF gets delight from seeing his toes popping through the bottom of the pant legs when he's gotten them all the way through ("Hi, toes!" we say together).

Sometimes while doing this work, the children make it extremely clear that my hands-on help is not required or desired.  My verbal offers of help when I see a foot stuck half-way through a pant leg is often met with a strong head shake or "No, no, no!"  When physical help is refused, I still offer verbal coaching ("You got your first leg all the way through!  Now you can open up your waistband really wide to get your other foot in."  "Now that you've pulled up the front of your pants, you can slide your thumbs around to find the back and pull that over your diaper as well!").  These children are hungry for information about how to do things for themselves, and eager to listen to hints I have to offer.

There are times when the desire to do tricky tasks independently leads to frustration.  Coat arms can be confusing, pants can get twisted, shirts are turned inside out, and zippers aren't easily mastered.  After allowing space for children to try it on their own and offering verbal coaching, my next move is to suggest we do it together "like a team."  This gives us the opportunity to slow down together ("When we look closely at your coat, we can see the hole for your arm is right there."  "I put this part of the zipper inside that part and then pull it down all the way.  Now you can zip it up!").  Offering only the help that is needed is a difficult balance to find, and I am always looking for that place where a child is doing what they can at their ability level, and getting a chance to try things that are a stretch.

Even the most independent toddlers at some points want things done for them.  This happens for our group most often when we are on the porch putting our shoes on to go outside.   It would be so much faster to go play if I would just put everyone's shoes on for them (or if I would let them go play with no shoes at all)!  When I'm offered a shoe and a foot is flopped into my lap, asking for me to just put the shoe on already, it's a great reminder for me to engage the children's spirit of independence and inquiry and find concrete ways to invite active participation.

It is remarkable, and fascinating, and so much fun to see these 16- to 19-month-olds at work, each fostering their own sense of independence.  It may take us a long time to get dressed, or get outside at this point in our group, but I know we are doing long term work building towards a time these children are doing it all for themselves.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Projector, a Fishing Boat, and a Neverending Journey

Anyone familiar with our school knows the importance of the "back room" -- a very open room, available for fast, big movement, and with fewer toys than other areas in our school (this room also doubles as our nap room).  Its suitability for louder, fast-paced games often means a sizable group will gather there each morning, creating complex imaginary scenarios and acting them out with energy and enthusiasm.  Lately I have been trying to dedicate at least one morning a week to observing and documenting the games that take place here and I am excited to share them with a wider audience via our blog -- they are truly a beautiful window into the ongoing processing our group is doing.  Real-life happenings, favorite movies and books, fantastic creatures and outrageous journeys (to the moon! under the sea! through tunnels and mountains on a mission!) -- you can find all of these elements in almost every game as each child contributes to the group's play.

This morning, I set up the back room a little differently than usual, plugging in our old projector and arranging a few translucent magnet tiles on its surface.  The colorful shapes projected on the wall quickly drew OP's interest, who invited LD to come check it out: "Come and see something cool!" The two spend a few minutes rearranging the tiles before LD heads over to the stair toy: "This is our fishing boat!"  OP looks up with a huge grin at this suggestion and moves over to the wall, reaching for a projection of a green triangle magnet: "Try to reach the pear! I made us a pear.  These are trees!"

This imagination leads them both quickly to the next stage of the game: setting up a picnic!  As OP spreads the blanket out for them, LD announces: "yeah, because it's my birthday! And this is still our fishing boat, ok?"  At this point, CK and EK join the back room and we catch them up to speed on the game already in progress.  CK is instantly interested in joining the food-based, boat game with LD, while EK heads right to the projector.  EK builds an intricate magnet structure and notices that it doesn't show up on the wall -- we work together to push it higher and realize the bottom strip of the projection is actually on the floor and not the wall!

OP, LD, and CK are meanwhile in a dizzying swirl of a game that I find much trickier to track than any of them do.  Their game has evolved from just a few minutes ago: they are superheroes and dinosaurs and firefighters, changing between bad and good guys, and all the while have food to protect from tipping over in the ship.  No one declares where they are going, but they all take turns exclaiming, "it's gonna be a long, long time to get there!"  The destination itself seems not to matter -- they have packed food and prepared for a long journey as heroes or villains, and change the content of their mission at a moment's notice as they rock in the boat.

I am struck by how everyone actively listens to the others in the game, despite how quickly and dramatically each child's character and plan changes.  It is like watching a dance -- all three of them expect and look forward to their friends offering new ideas and anytime someone exclaims "hey!!", the others look to them with a smile and excitement, ready to appreciate the new direction that is almost surely about to be suggested.  In my time observing and documenting the various games that happen here, I have noticed that sometimes this dance seems to be the game itself, more so than it is about where they are going or what they will do when they get there.  The game is a space to adopt different identities, experiment with various roles, and to listen to friends who are doing the same thing.

While this game continues, EK, LC, and AH have meanwhile discovered that they can project their own hands' shadows on the wall, and have turned this into a game of trying to "catch" each others shadows as one or two people head over to the wall to jump and reach for them.  EK sets his book on the projector, and a large black shadow now fills most of the wall.  Everyone pauses to check this out, and I ask: "Why do you think we can't see the colors of the book on the wall?"

LC: "Because it's not facing down!"  She turns it over, but we are met with the same result.  The children quickly go back to projecting their own hands, preoccupied with other things. I hope we get to follow up on this question another time, perhaps with a small group!  JN arrives and is thrilled to join the game of jumping to reach the shadows.  Before long, most if not all of the children are involved in the game to catch each others hands on the wall -- this goal intersects well with the action-packed nature of the never-ending fishing boat journey, and many of the characters from that game run and leap off the boat to reach for shadows, too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Beginning of Winter

As the days have become colder, our time outside has gotten shorter. About a month ago we started noticing the early morning frost all around the yard. What started as toys stuck to a bucket or frosted leaves/ blades of grass has progressed to frozen puddles and snow fall.

Cohort 10 has always loved water, so it only makes sense that they would have an interest in ice! This past month we have done a lot of exploration of ice; looking closely, touching it, and using words to describe what they notice.
LC: “Brr! Cold!”
SWS: “It’s heavy!” as she throws a chunk of ice onto the black top.

As they move to different parts of the yard, on different days new things are discovered.
As the cold started the frost appeared, and LC realized that the boats she wanted to pick up were, “Stuck.” She tried for a while to pick them up and push them, but they wouldn’t budge, so she asked, “Help?” Initially, when I tried to pick one up, the bucket lifted off the ground slightly before it detached.

Our favorite mixing bucket that was filled with sand and water could no longer be mixed as it had a layer of ice on top. After I removed a piece of wood from it, SWS worked to break off pieces of ice, exclaiming, “Ice!” every time a piece came free.

Colder days came and with them more ice. We found a coating of ice on the bricks along the side of our patch of grass in the back, and JS and LC took note of how slippery it was. An experiment also took place, one in which we filled various bowls with water and left them over night. This made for lots of ice available to be explored the next day. Once the pieces were removed, it was easy to throw or drop them and pick up and collect all of the pieces.

Some of the ice remained in the bowls, while other chunks got carried around and thrown… During this time, they were watching as these chunks were breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.

With all of this ice handling it left their hands cold and bright red. We talked a lot about putting their hands in pockets and I offered hand holding and hot breaths, but once they got to that point it was time to move inside. They were ready to warm up.